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Scientists have discovered the first self-replicating living robots

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Apparently, robots can reproduce. Last year, a team of scientists from the University of Vermont, Tufts and Harvard took stem cells from a frog and turned them into robots, specifically tiny creatures called xenobots. And then the scientists sat back and watched something totally new happen in the lab. The tiny robots made copies of themselves.

MICHAEL LEVIN: If they find themselves in an environment with other cells sort of sprinkled on the bottom of the petri dish, they will go around and, like tiny little bulldozers, basically corral these other cells into piles. And those piles will also become slightly smaller xenobots, the next generation of xenobots.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That's Michael Levin of Tufts University. He's one of the scientists on the project. He helped build these tiny creatures from frogs. They have no brains or nervous systems, and yet they can move around and interact with each other. This seems like the opposite of what a robot created by humans is supposed to do, but it makes sense to Levin.

LEVIN: You know, the definition of a robot has nothing to do with being metallic. What you're made of is not what distinguishes a biological creature from a robot. It all has to do with the degree of self autonomy and how well can we predict and control what it's going to do?

INSKEEP: OK. Autonomous living cells reproducing of their own free will - what could possibly go wrong here? But Levin says nothing to worry about.

LEVIN: This is not anything that's going to get out of control in the way that many other technologies are poised to do.

MARTIN: The researchers say this xenobot and others like it have lots of potential for health care - human health care, that is.

LEVIN: All of the problems of medicine, with perhaps the exception of infectious disease, would be addressable if we understood how to get collectives of cells to build specific things. This is the technology that is going to help us crack that code and be able to tell these cells how to rebuild all of the organs.

MARTIN: Meaning they might be able to help us cure birth defects, traumatic injury, cancer, degenerative diseases and more.

INSKEEP: So maybe we should give these xenobots some privacy, let them go off and replicate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.